YouTuber and playwright Abigail Thorn explains why Shakespeare has ‘so much trans potential’

Abigail Thorn in The Prince. (Supplied)

Considering the transphobic backlash to I, Joan, a non-binary retelling of the life of Joan of Arc, you might think deviating from gender norms in theatre was a new concept.

But, as YouTuber, playwright and actress Abigail Thorn reminds us, that simply isn’t the case.

“There’s so much transgender potential in Shakespeare,” Abigail, best-known for her YouTube channel, Philosophy Tube, which boasts more than 1.2 million subscribers, tells PinkNews.

“Especially because in Shakespeare’s time, all the roles would have been played by men.

“Shakespeare is full of jokes about people dressing up as the other gender and people being confused for the wrong person and double layers and meaning.

“The famous quote in Hamlet – ‘O that this too solid flesh would melt’ – is such a trans mood.”

Abigail watched the attacks on Shakespeare’s Globe theatre with interest – I, Joan made its debut just a month before her new play, The Prince, premieres.

“It was such a shame to see people say, ‘no, this kind of art should not be made’, when historical reinterpretation and the queering of things has been around for as long as there’s been art,” she says.

Abigail Thorn. (Supplied)

Abigail Thorn. (Supplied)

The Prince, which is being staged at London’s Southwark Playhouse from mid-September 2022, is an “Elizabethan sci-fi” which pulls from Henry IV Part One as well as other notable works.

When Sam (Joni Ayton-Kent) and Jen (Mary Malone) join forces with Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy (Abigail), what follows is an empowering and magical tale of sexuality and gender awakenings, love found, love lost and what it means to be yourself.
In the playwright’s words, it’s a story about “sword fighting, lesbianism, denial, disappointed parents, and a magical doorway”.

Mary Malone plays Jen (L) and Joni Alton-Kent plays Sam (R). (Supplied)

Mary Malone plays Jen (L) and Joni Alton-Kent plays Sam (R). (Supplied)

Aside from Shakespeare, Abigail also pulled from her own experiences going through her transition, first privately and then completely under the public eye after making her viral coming out video in January 2021

“There was a long period on Philosophy Tube where I would deliberately disguise myself. I would turn up to the studio and change my clothes and hide my breasts and pitch my voice down, and I hid on the show,” she says.

“And whilst that was happening I developed the queer themes of the play. I don’t tell people it’s a queer play because it isn’t really. It’s about characters who are trapped for all sorts of reasons. 

“But I was interested in this idea of playing one role and really being another because that was a big part of my life.”

The plot of the play, which has “a gender transition at the heart of it” is mirrored by the casting choices, with a majority trans cast taking to the stage. 

Although Abigail wasn’t involved in the casting process for The Prince due to conflict of interest, she can’t “imagine anyone else” playing the roles.

“The whole cast is bringing so much to it,” she says.

“They bring their individual senses of humour to the roles and the way that they deliver some of the jokes. The way they make really interesting choices about which emotional beats or which words to emphasise.

“These people are just so perfect with the energy that they bring to the space.”

Abigail Thorn (centre) and Joni Ayton-Kent (right) In rehearsals. (Supplied)

Abigail Thorn (centre) and Joni Ayton-Kent (right) In rehearsals. (Supplied)

Abigail, Mary and Joni will be joined on stage by Tianna Arnold as Lady Kate, who apparently has “all the best lines”, Che Walker as King Henry IV, Corey Montague Sholay as Prince Hal, Richard Rees as Worcester and Tyler Luke Cunningham as Douglas. 

The backlash to I, Joan influenced the staging of The Prince, especially when it came to safety

“I was very, very glad that the producers and I had had a conversation right at the start about security. I knew there was a potential for this subject matter to prove controversial,” Abigail says.

Despite the recent negative attention on I, Joan (which opened to rave reviews and standing ovations), Thorn’s love for The Prince is clear and she’s passionate about what she hopes people will take from it.

“I hope they understand that as the queer characters in the play go on their journey, so too must all the cishet characters as well,” she says.

“I hope that people will be able to see that when someone transitions, everyone around them has to transition as well. And that is emotionally difficult and complicated, but also beautiful, and it’s something you can really, really get invested in.

“I just hope that people will come away with a richer understanding of not just the queer people in their lives, but everyone.”
The Prince is running from 15 September to 8 October at Southwark Playhouse. Tickets are available here.